FIBERuary Day 28  GROWING AND PROCESSING FLAX   Talk and demo at Sheep and Shawl.                               with Michelle Phillips

Today was the last in a series of 4 talks given at Sheep and Shawl. Thanks to Liz and John for hosting these wonderful talks.

Michelle did a wonderful job of explaining the planting and finishing process of Flax.  I wanted to share with you pictures of this event. Everyone who wanted to got a chance to try their hand at it and see many wonder samples from the plant itself to the finished product.


Three different varieties of Flax


Dryed and Retted, ready for processing


Michelle using a Flax Brake.  This brakes the fiber from the stem.


This is a plant with a break in it, you can see the fiber between the break


Michelle using the Heckle.  The heckle splits and straightens flax fibers for spinning.

A wonderful time was had by all. 



FIBERuary Jill and Jim Lyons




Skirting Fleece


“Skirting” is the traditional term for removing less desirable/ clearly unusable parts of a sheep fleece.  When a fleece is laid out- cut side down- it looks something like this:

(in this sketch, the head end of the fleece is facing down).  You’ll see that the outside edges of the fleece, all the way around, are the edges to be removed.  (Think of a laid out skirt, with the hem chopped off.)


It’s helpful to lay the fleece out on a skirting table.  Ours is about 4’ by 8’, a wooden frame around welded wire that’s set on sawhorses.  The holes in the wire let some small bits fall through.


The amount of skirting to be done on any particular fleece can vary tremendously:  all the way from none to virtually the entire fleece.


For me, the two things I’m skirting is fiber that is structurally unsound or contaminated by vegetation.  Structurally unsound fleece can be:

  • Fleece from the belly or legs (often a very different quality).
  • Fleece with kemp (hair not wool) fibers- unless from a fleece that should have kemp.
  • Fleece so weathered that all oil is gone.  This fleece is usually found around the edges and (particularly in luster fleece) along the backbone.
  • Parts of fleece that are cotted (clumped together)
  • Fleece with a break (usually caused by stress, when the wool growth has been retarded)
  • Fleece contaminated with manure and so weathered or colored.
  • “Second cuts” or short bits where the shearer has sheared some fleece twice.


Most vegetal contamination is caused by hay or by weeds.  Sheep are gregarious creatures, and love to chew while turning their head over the back of the sheep next to them.  (My tallest sheep almost always have less back hay than the shorter ones.)  They love to pull out great bunches of hay, dropping the uneaten portions.  This is why most sheep feeders have small openings, forcing the sheep to take smaller bites.  Sheep will also dribble hay over their own and their neighbors’ neck wool. Weeds can be of many species.  We’re renovating old pasture and my two biggest problems come from burdock and thistles…sometimes I don’t get to removing them before the sheep find them.  Burdocks aren’t too bad to get out- as long as they’re removed right after they attach.  I once had some sheep get into beggars’ ticks- most of that fleece had to be tossed.


So from a shepherd’s perspective, how do you keep the fleeces clean?  There are lots of strategies:

  • Most time consuming, expensive and effective are sheep coats.  These need to be kept clean (washed and dried after a bout of hot, wet weather- and other times.  Lots of labor- but the value of your fleece is doubled- or tripled.
  • Pay attention to your pastures.  Always check them and remove weeds before turning the sheep into a new section.
  • In winter with snow, ground feed your sheep on clean snow each day.  When you do this, you break the bale into flakes and lay each flake out about 3 feet from any other.  This reduces hay from one dropping into the fleece of a neighboring sheep.
  • We’re trying a new experiment this year, shearing in the fall instead of the spring.  This means that we’re shearing fleece that’s been grazing and not eating hay for five or six months.  The hay falling onto shorter fleece seems to stick less- and some likely washes out over the summer.  The couple we experimented with worked well- we’ll have to see what the whole group look like in October.


The photos are of a Romney fleece with six months growth which was shorn in the fall.  The fleece is a bit jumbled- but  the first picture shows about one third of the fleece, with the two small piles on the right being the fleece I’ve skirted out.

The next photo is a close up of some of the wool so you can see the staple.

From a spinner’s perspective, a lot depends on how bad the fleece is and how much you like it.  One of the frustrations is that the finest fleece around the neck is generally in the worst shape, as shown on the two diagrams below. 

When I skirt I actually sort into three bags:  Prime, Seconds, and Skirtings.  I’ve learned that I can often use the seconds- after washing and dyeing they can surprise me.  I’m still looking for skirting uses.  It composts very slowly, makes lousy mulch.  I’ve had people use it for insulation in a double wall (unwashed….not sure what it attracts).  Someone tried to use it as the first layer on a green (ie, planted) roof.  Our dogs have bags of it to sleep on during cold winters….but I just replace the wool if it gets soaked with urine or throw-up.


I do weigh and make notes about each fleece, and I use those notes when breeding and when culling.


When you buy a fleece it should be clean!  You still should lay it out and look at it whole.  Are the different sections of fleece similar in staple length and softness?  If not and you want to make one project from that whole fleece, you’ll need to take care to evenly blend the different kinds of fiber.  Lots of times I just use the different types of fleece in different ways.


Hope this helps you approach a fleece- buying one raw (in the grease) is a great way to start.  Fun- and it smells good.


Jill Horton-Lyons

Winterberry Farm


FIBERuary Carole Adams


FIBERuary Day 26



Black Walnut nut and leave detail.JPG

Black Walnut trees are found from Canada to Florida.    They are found in forests and in neighborhoods.  The nuts start dropping in late September and sometimes you can smell the tree before you see it  They have a delightful odor.  The nuts are covered with a greenish-brown hull.

I have found that people are always glad for you to pick them and take them away.  They stain cars, clothes and can make a mess of a yard.    If the hulls have turned brown you will need to wear gloves when picking them otherwise your hands will be stained  a pretty brown. If you can’t find a tree near you check on Craig’s list, I have seen ads to come and pick for free

I do not take the walnut out of the husk as the walnut contains tannins which are a mordant helping the dye to adhere to the fiber..

                             PREPARATION AND DYEING

If you are not going to use them for dye right away I suggest you either let them dry out or freeze them.  You can also make up the dye solution and freeze it.   I prefer to let them dry out.  I put them on a  baking rack and let them dry naturally.


They will turn a dark brown when dried.  I then store them in a glass jar for future use.  You can also freeze them.  I always have an ample supply at the ready..  They  can be used many times.  

I fill up my dye pot with water and put my hulls in a cotton cloth.  Tying the ends so the walnuts don’t come out.  (They tend to come apart during the dyeing process and the pieces are hard to take out of wool.)  I bring this to a simmer.  You will notice the color of the water changing almost immediately after you put the nuts in.   I let the water simmer for an hour or so  Then I remove the cloth with the nuts in it and let it drain.  You will find you have a wonderfully colored cloth


.  I let the water cool before adding wet wool, slowly bring it up to a simmer again and after 30-45 minutes bring out your wool. .  This dye will work on all sorts of natural fibers.

The picture below is  of cotton and wool fabric and wool roving.  It was left in less than a half hour.  If left in the dye pot longer the color will deepen .  Adding more hulls to the water will also make the dye darker.



I like to over dye plaids with this dye as it give the plaids a primitive look.  


This dye can also be used to dye and over dye embroidery thread.


I am going to put it back in the dye pot in hope to get a little darker color.


Below is some roving dyed with the copper solution


Enjoy Natural Dyeing

Carole Adams   Whispering Pines Frm


FIBERuary Jane Dunning


FIBERuary Day 25          Knitting with Jane Dunning



I am so glad that I signed up for the class at Sheep and Shawl for “brioche” knitting.  I had tried to learn it from both a book and from an internet video, and it seemed to be very complicated.  This class proved that it is not above my ability,  and is actually a very pleasant way of knitting, once you get into the rhythm.  I was, however, glad that she had us put in a lifeline after a few row.  I lost concentration at one point, and I was glad that I was able to use it.  I had chosen a green heather yarn that I came to love, the more I worked with it.  The class was time well spent, a it of time away, and a new skill to lay with.

There are two type of brioche…  the one color brioche, which I learned this week, i relatively simple, specially if you have the advantages of a good teacher and a small class.  The Basics are here:

Cast on an even number of stitches

We cast on 24, using a loose cast on.

Row 1: *Yarn over, (yarn in front), slip 1, knit 1, Repeat from * across.

Row 2: *Yarn over (yarn in front), slip 1, knit 2 together.  Repeat from * across. 

Repeat only row 2 for pattern.  Note that with the preparation row you’ll be working on more stitches then you cast on, so plan for that when  determining gauge.

When ending a project or area of brioche, work the row by eliminating the yarn overs and simply purling  1 and knitting 2 together across, loosely.

You will notice that I have put a marker on the right ide of my piece o that if I choose to add another color at some point, I can add it on that side.

This make a soft and “squishy” fabric  that i warm and cozy.  The two color brioche is  a bit more complicated, but produces a fabric that is very dramatic in appearance.  Sheep and Shaw in South Deerfeld will be offering a course in April so that we can work on the two color version.

Brioche stitch was named for a type of a light, sweet yeast bread typically in the form of a fluffy buttery bun.  The Stitch was used in  18th  Century England to create a soft cushion.


This is a dramatic example of a two-color brioche stitch.


To see more examples of two-color brioche, use this link:                                                                 

Posted by Jane Dunning, February 25, 2016














FIBERuary Liz Sorenson


FIBERuary   Day  24


Read Knitting Books for Enjoyment!

Liz Sorenson, owner of Sheep & Shawl


Do you ever read cookbooks for enjoyment, not just the recipes?  You know the ones, they talk about where food comes from, who invented specialties in recipes, the sense of place that food evokes, and sometimes a travelogue of far-away places.


I look for that in knitting books too, and here are several I’m especially fond of – the newer ones I’m still reading, but I’ll point you in their direction anyway.  You can find them on the shelves at Sheep & Shawl.

In the Footsteps of Sheep, by Debbie Zawinski, is a wonderful specialized tour of Scotland in search of different breeds of sheep and enough of their bits of shed wool (along fence lines, blowing across the grass) to spin yarn and design and knit socks.  She found 10 different breeds and includes patterns for 11 different socks.  But the sense of place and love for her travels, often by foot and solitary, in all kinds of weather, meeting unusual folks along the way are enchanting.  You may never knit socks, but you’ll enjoy reading this book.

KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, by Felicity Ford, aka Felix, is all about color in the UK as seen through her eyes in finding ways to incorporate the landscapes around her, as well as the daily objects she is drawn to by color and design and pattern, into the mesmerizing patterns of Fair Isle, also known as stranded colorwork, knitting.  The beautiful photos may make you want to immediately start swatching in multi-colors.  But you can also get happily lost in her enthusiasm for the daily beauty around her.  She gives you her step-by-step directions and practical exercises if you want to follow her method, but she really wants to inspire you to find what makes you happy in the colors around you, and that’s definitely worth exploring.


Buachaille, by Kate Davies, is about her journey in developing her own yarn line, sourced from Scottish sheep and spun in an historic Yorkshire mill.  She reflects on how the landscape influences the qualities of the fleece and named her yarn after one of her favorite West Highland mountains.  The book is filled with evocative photos of that landscape, with Kate wearing her knitted creations (she is a designer of many knitting patterns).  She is also an expert blogger, an academic and author in a former career.  Her attention to detail, her inspired passion about the feel of the yarn, the quality of the light, the local food her husband cooks (here is a book where you get recipes as well as knitting patterns as well as a profound sense of place), are what make so many knitters follow her blog and her latest pattern release.  The book is a treasure.



FIBERuary Peggy Hart Mills



FIBERuary Day 23     Peggy Hart   Spinneries



The big woolen mills are gone, but a number of small custom work spinneries have sprung up to spin yarn for fiber farmers. On the custom weaving page of my website,, there is a list of some of the ones I have worked with. Whether you  keep sheep yourself, or are just looking to source locally grown and processed wool, this list may be useful. Some use old industrial equipment, some use the new Mini Mill equipment. Most spin woolen system and others semi worsted.
Questions to consider when choosing a mill:
  • Where: You will save yourself some expense and trouble if you can drive your wool to the spinnery. This also gives you the opportunity of talking to the spinnery about the best design for your yarn and for them to look at your wool. If the wool is damaged or has too much vegetable matter in it they can tell you right then and there.
  • How much wool: Spinnery minimums range from totally custom (one fleece) to 100 lbs raw fleece to 300 lbs. washed fleece. Costs of spinning at some mills go down dramatically as you have larger quantities spun.
  • Yarn design: Mills spin either woolen or semi worsted system. Woolen yarn is lofty and especially suited for knitting and most weaving. Woolen system mills typically accommodate staple lengths of 2 1/2”-5”.  If your wool is longer, you will need to find a mill that spins semi worsted yarn, which will result in a stronger, more lustrous yarn.
  • Scouring: Some mills scour, some don’t. Riteway offers a scouring only service.
Green Mountain Spinnery, Zeilingers, Harrisville Designs and Bartlettyarns are woolen system mills that use old industrial equipment. Bartlett has been in operation more than 150 years, Zeilingers has been around since 1910, while Harrisville Designs was started in 1971 and Green Mountain in 1981. All of these do custom spinning as well as selling their own line of yarns.
The Hampton Fiber Mill and Still River Mill both spin semi worsted yarn, using modern equipment.
There are a number of Mini Mills around; some of the others on my list fall into this category. Mini Mills refers to the Belfast machinery that is designed to serve the needs of alpaca farmers. Because alpaca is long, fine, and needs to be dehaired before spinning, it cannot be spun using conventional woolen equipment. The Belfast Mini Mill is a smaller piece of equipment than the old industrial machines, and they describe it themselves as cottage industry spinning equipment. It reminds me of the spinning jennys of the early 1800s. They sell 4 and 8 spindle models. I will say from my experience that quality of spinning varies widely. Many owners got into the business knowing nothing about spinning, qualities of different fibers, or functions of knitting and weaving yarns. However there are a lot of them all over the country now. Word of mouth recommendations are a good idea. They will process small quantities.

Spinning Jenny

FIBERuary Jill and Jim Lyons


FIBERUARY  Day 22   Jill and Jim – Life with Border Collies and Sheep


Life with Border Collies (and sheep.  Always sheep)

My first Border Collie was Kate.  Kate came from good working stock, but was not a keen dog (according to several very skilled handlers).  Which was most fortunate!  I got her when we’d only had sheep for a couple of years, I had a more than full time job, and was learning to weave.  Also, I am not very coordinated, and my special direction sense is poor.  Kate was a sweet beast, unusually laid back for a collie, and a great help penning up escaped chickens.  She lived to a lovely old age.


Kate taught me that working effectively with a herding dog was not easy.  And, given my skill set, would be a huge challenge for me.


My next dog came from a barter.  I was working off farm just half time by now, and we were back from Woolman Hill and doing quite a few kids programs at the farm.  Roy came from very intense (actually, his mother was really neurotic) stock.  He was way too much for me and I also made lots of mistakes raising him….given his temperament I should have spent much more time socializing him.  We worked with a trainer a lot (but a trainer who thoroughly intimidated me)- Roy showed excellent potential.  But he was scared of kids (and we do lots of kids farm programs…)  One day he wasn’t crated fast enough- and he bit a child.  Fortunately not badly.  Fortunately from a low key family we knew pretty well- from lots of programs.  Roy went to live in Texas with a nice man who inspected oil wells and trialed on weekends. Never any problems- he liked traveling on inspections and loved working sheep.


Now I really listened to experienced shepherds.  They helped me find a lovely experienced border collie in Wisconsin who needed more work than he could get on his farm.  He was a steady, not brilliant, worker living on a sheep and cattle farm with a number of dogs.  Several of the dogs were good trial dogs as well as farm dogs- they did and needed to do- most of the work.  Brock was six and a little depressed.  We flew home together and Brock taught me lots about sheep and dogs.  We also took lessons more regularly.  Then he died- after being with us for only three years.  I’d gotten Sweep as a puppy in 2007 (more about Sweep in a bit), but he was nowhere near ready to work.  So back to the border collie network.  I ended up with Bob- also from Wisconsin.  A similar story- older dog, not ready to retire.  Bob’s working style was quite different than Brock’s- so I learned a lot more.  (Bob died in 2011, still working some, from an inoperable cancer.)


Fast forward to 2013.  We moved to Colrain, to the hill farm I’d always wanted (can’t grow crops, but you sure can grow food, clothing and blankets!) Sweep is now seven- and what’s called a “useful dog”.  Trained by a shepherd with limited dog skills, but he was great at fetching and moving sheep.  My dear husband has always loved dogs, but never in all the years of moving sheep to different borrowed Leverett pastures thought the collies much better than a grain bucket.  The hills here are steep and the fields quite wide.  I noticed he took Sweep with him when moving fence…Sweep saved him lots of time and walking when the sheep decided to try for the hay field instead of the lower pasture.

(Someday he’ll end up with his own dog- just doesn’t know it yet.)


So here’s Sweep- now 9.  He was a real late bloomer as a pup- didn’t work until almost 14 months old- but now he’s our steady, do almost anything dog.  The ewes are in their last month of pregnancy now, so we take them out for exercise every day when we can.  Sweep takes them out and brings them in

Maude is a different story.  She is almost 7 . Is sometimes brilliant (did a fantastic job when the pigs got out last summer), and often difficult.  Dog and shepherd need to be a team. After years of work, lessons, dog clinics and advice I’ve come to accept that we never will be a good one.  She (and some others in her litter) have a head-strong streak- they periodically do not listen to (or perhaps simply cannot psychologically hear) the shepherd.  I’m hoping to work intensively again with her this spring and summer- I think she can become an OK back-up for the aging Sweep.  And here’s Maude.  More ewe exercise.  And the picture of us together tells you about our working relationship.

When the work is done we do sometimes play

And I’ve not mentioned Brynn.  Brynn came to us from Washington state, at almost the same time as Bob. She was another OK herder, not a trial dog.  She had a lovely pace, but was timid with our sheep.  So she became our principal duck dog.  (Ducks are useful to show people at farm events how border collies work- sheep are hard to lug around.)  Three years ago her hearing got bad, two years ago her sight started going. She is a particularly sweet and happy thing (even happier than Kate).  Now 11, she is pleased not to work, so stays here for walks and hugs.